Rosh Hashana sermon by Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins

Baruch She’amar: Blessed is the one who speaks

I remember as a 13-year-old listening to the words of the Doors’ “The Soft Parade” as Jim Morrison screams sings:

“When I was back there in seminary school
There was a person there
Who put forth the proposition
That you can petition the Lord with prayer
Petition the lord with prayer
Petition the lord with prayer
You cannot petition the lord with prayer!”

The odd thing is that I believed that then, and I more or less believe that now.  Who is the Lord that we as Jews petition? The original name, the yud heh vav hey that we say “Adonai” and gets translated as Lord, means “being”.  How can we presume that the Ultimate Being, the one who exists beyond the time and space unfolding infinitely over 14 billion years, will change nature and reality just because we plead for It to do so? As Nick Cave would sing 28 years after Morrison, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.”  Well if that is so, if there is no interventionist God, then why would we pray thrice daily, with an additional time on Shabbat and festivals, and five times on Yom Kippur, and embrace a tradition that says we should say at least one hundred blessings a day?

One insight comes from the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tze, (who lived in the 6th century BCE) who said: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny." The conscious articulation of our thoughts, in the form of words, shapes our actions, our character, and indeed our destiny.  The oral recitation of prayers and blessings, spoken words, may not change the reality of the Universe, but they definitely change our reality.  Our words become our actions, our actions become our habits, our habits become our character and our character becomes our destiny.  The words don’t convince some God out there to change our reality; rather, they shape and eventually concretise our reality.

At first blush, one might think this teaching contradicts the principles of the prayers we say over these ten days, prayers that insist that God is the King, or that God is the potter and we are the clay – that we have no role in our destiny.  But let us understand prayer is poetic metaphor, and God is the being that allows all creation to exist; that Being, God, infuses us.  When we say prayers, we are not changing the ultimate reality of things except in the way that we are changing ourselves and thereby the community we influence.  When we pray for peace, we don’t expect peace between enemies, say the Palestinians and Israelis, to break out miraculously; we do expect that we will act more peacefully.  When we pray for healing, we may wish that God would wave a magic wand but that’s not how life works; we should, rather, be motivated to perform the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting and providing for someone who is ill, or at least reach out to the family of that individual.  Our articulation of the words in prayer is intended to make us more aware of our ultimate concerns, and then to transform that awareness into action.

What happens to us in life is often out of our hands.  Sometimes we have luck and sometimes we suffer bad things.  How we live is totally in our own hands, and to affirm life in the face of death, in the throes of illness, in the midst of suffering, in the bounds of despair – is possible.  Throughout these ten days we will explore the tension between life and death itself, brought to the fore in the oft misunderstood prayer, “Unateneh Tokef”.  “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die.”  But most of us do not believe there is a Book of Life any more than we believe in an interventionist God, a God we can petition through prayer.  Most of us do understand however that life is a book we write for ourselves.  “Unataneh Tokef” reminds us that life is precarious, that none of us gets out of here alive.  While when and how we will die is part of the great mystery, how we will live is in our hands, as clearly indicated by the climax of the prayer, “teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah can mitigate the severity of the decree.”  The decree, death, is the same for one and all; death, of course, is our ultimate destiny. Teshuvah, repentance, holds that just as change is built into the universe, so the potential for change is built within us.  And one way we transform our lives, is the way we use our words.   Tefillah, prayer, is an extraordinary way to become word wise, to shape our actions and influence our destiny in life.

These ten days of teshuvah between Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur counter the proposition that everything we do is genetically determined; Judaism insists that we shape our own lives, our destinies.  We have the power to rectify wrongs, to change the course of our lives, to set sail for new destinations.  The author Nigel Marshall shared this image with me and others recently: Imagine you are heading off on an ocean liner from Sydney to Los Angeles, and the captain inadvertently sets the course off by one 100th of a degree.  If the need to change is recognised and made within a few miles of the journey’s commencement, the change needed to get back on course will be easier than if the error is only recognised as South America comes into view.  The best way to stay on course, or to rectify error early, is to be as self aware as possible, and that awareness can come from watching the articulation of our words.  Simply put, the teaching of our ancestors through the tradition of Judaism is that the spoken word manifests your consciousness operating in the world.

On Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate the creation of the world, we recall the opening story of the Torah that teaches that all that exists emanates from the spoken word: “In the beginning there was tohu v’vohu”  (chaotic void), and then “God spoke and said: ‘Let there be light.’”  The light of the big bang emanates from the Eternal Being’s creative consciousness in an act we refer to as speech. This story is reflected in the opening blessing that introduces our daily recitation of Psalms in praise of creation. That blessing, “Baruch She’amar” begins: “Praised is God whose word created the world.”  Understanding that human beings are an aspect of Ultimate Being, Judaism teaches us that our words fashion our world.  Every single utterance counts.  Blessed is the one who spoke and created the world.

Each word we recite creates our world.  But does God really need to hear all of these words of praise and gratitude, all these petitions for compassion and forgiveness?  No, but we do. When we use the metaphor of God as King over these ten days, think of your sovereign self, your core being, your ultimate purpose. A lovely adage from the siddur Gates of Prayer states, “Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on you.” And how do you do that?  Consciously uttering words.  As we say at the beginning of our core prayer, the Amidah, “God, open my mouth so my lips may sing Your praise.”  You are the one who speaks; you are the one who hears.  And when we recite our prayers together in community, when we speak with and hear each other, the impact of our words is magnified; our words shape our destiny.  Blessed is the one who spoke and created the world.

What most Jews do not realise is that the core of our prayer is not petition at all, but praise and thanksgiving; the essence of reciting blessings and prayers is to make us more grateful for and in life.  So many of us take our every day life for granted, we walk through life ungrateful and unaware.  We live in this incredible city and country in this most wonderful time for us while around the world is famine, poverty, warfare, unemployment and devastation.  We can respond to these plagues with tzedakah as we are obligated, and we can also acknowledge all of our blessings.  Our great prophet and teacher, Moshe, thousands of years ago cautioned us: “Yeshurun waxed and got fat”, meaning that as the people had material prosperity and physical security they became selfish and complacent.  He suggested an antidote, another way of thinking: “you have eaten, you are satisfied, you should give thanks.”  By reciting blessings, consciously and vocally with words of gratitude, we become grateful for our good fortune. Our words become our actions and our actions our character.

The first thing we say upon waking is a blessing for being alive.  The second thing we say is a blessing for the healthy functioning of our body, as most of us normally have to go to the toilet after we get out of bed.  Spoken words, blessings of gratitude, help set the course for our day.  There are blessings of gratitude for the food that we eat, blessings for the beauty of the world that we see, that we hear, that we smell.  These expressions of gratitude help keep our ship on course – otherwise we find ourselves, in one of the wealthiest, safest, most beautiful countries in the world complaining about our lot.

Can we imagine a world in which people primarily speak words of praise or gratitude? Can we imagine a world in which there are no shock jocks, foul-mouthed politicians or trolls?  Through our daily spoken words, we have the ability to create the world of sacred speech and right action imagined thousands of years ago by the Psalmist (34:11-14): “Come children, listen to me; I will teach you to revere God.  Which of you desires life, loves long years discovering goodness?  Keep your tongue from evil, your lips from speaking lies, shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.”   The psalmist understood that gratitude for our lot would lead to concern for others less fortunate.  Our words create our world.  Blessed is the one who spoke and the world came to be.  Your words create your world.

In his Ted talk Shining Eyes, conductor Ben Zander relates the story of a survivor of the Shoah who told him the following.  She was about 15 and her little brother 8 when they were deported to Auschwitz; on the train she noticed his bare feet and berated him for not remembering his shoes.  She survived and he perished.  To this day she has regretted that those were her final words to her baby brother, the last thing he heard from her, and she has vowed that what she says to others should be said in the vein that it may be the last thing she says, the last thing another hears from her.  While this may be an impossibly high bar, it is the standard for which we all should strive in our speech.  When we fail, we have repentance to set the course straight; but when we succeed we have created the world in which we actually wish to live.   Blessed by the one who spoke and created the world.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins is senior rabbi at Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW.

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